Outside the Circle

Cindy Milstein

Red Streets, Red Art, Montreal, Night 44

Last night I joined about 9 people in a casseroles in Montreal; tonight, consecutive evening number 44, there were thousands, boisterous and carnivalesque, overtaking the streets to the cheers of people in houses and bars and cafes as we marched. I also stumbled across the Ecole de la Montagne Rouge crew at the start of the march. They were all wearing red coveralls with their collective name screened on the back, printing big posters on white paper in red ink to connect cuts to the arts to increases to education, as long lines of folks eagerly waited their turn for a fresh print, which many then pinned to their bodies for the march or took home as a revolutionary souvenir. A couple hours later, when the march passed the art students as they were packing up, I asked them if I could stop by their studio sometime in the coming week or so, and they said, “Come with us now!” reaching out a red-ink-stained hand to shake mine but quickly realizing a hello and smile was a better idea, as I trooped after them to their studio.

I want to write more on the culture & geography of resistance, and some of what I saw at Ecole de la Montagne Rouge’s giant 2-room studio, with their many screen-printed posters crawling up the high walls, and big cardboard posters leaning against walls, with sticks still attached so that two people can easily carry one sign in a demo. But for now, since it’s late yet again, seeing this space where striking students have been making art for months now–inspired by May 1968, Black Mountain, and Poland, as one of them told me, but also this movement and their excitement about it–only confirmed what I’ve felt on the streets when seeing art & revolution: that the two (movement & art) are hand in hand. Here, in this gorgeous studio, with the friendly group of artists happily showing me around, it was clear that their art is of and for the moments, the many moments, of maple spring. As one of them explained, they pull from the ongoing current events, quickly responding by quickly making a new design, trying to use French word plays and double meanings within images that, too, offer double or multiple meanings. We want to keep our art open, said one of the artists, so people can interpret it and make it their own.

One of the Ecole de la Montagne Rouge’s recent comrades, a sociology student this fall (“maybe,” he joked), went image by image with me, translating the varied meanings of words as well as art, and filling in some history, especially Quebec movement history, for me, such as the “Refus Global” (Total Refusal) manifesto by a group of 16 artists and intellectuals that is viewed as one of the influences for Quebec’s Quiet Revolution in the 1960s and, as my guide explained, for the students now. As he talked to me about the Total Refusal’s manifesto, he pointed to his arm with a finger, ran the finger up his arm, and smiled, “Look, I have goosebumps just talking about it.”

One of the red-outfitted artists, with ink spots decorating his coveralls, said that the student strike had always been about something larger than a tuition increase. The increase, he noted, wouldn’t even impact the current students, since it would take several years to go into effect. It was always about future students, he went on, but more than that, about anti-austerity and, indeed, the future. He gestured with his hands, drawing them from his sides upward, saying that this student strike has brought out what was underneath: the feelings, concerns, and desires of people generally. For him, that was also about Quebec removing itself from Canada, not being under Harper, but being, in his words, its own state instead of a province–and a French-speaking one.

He and my impromptu guide both indicated a phrase on one of their posters in particular: “le combat est avenir.” It was printed on cardboard, back when they used to print more of their posters in quantity on cardboard as signs for demonstrations (paper is now easier for them to carry and print on in larger quantities, my guide said). I hope I’m not doing an injustice to the translation that they described, but they said “avenir” offered the mixed meaning of “in the future” and “to have” or “with a future,” and if I understood correctly, “for a future”–all added to “le combat” or fight. One can then see the waves as moving toward a future or creating waves now to make a better future, or other interpretations. Again, that’s the intention, the artist said: that even if I am translating it incorrectly, I’m drawing out my own meaning, engaging with the art and its words through the lens of my (and thousands of others) participation in, to borrow a grammatical phrase in English, a “future perfect.”

As for the march itself, there were so many poignant scenes on tonight’s manif in Montreal, from hearing and then seeing small casseroles after casseroles at various intersections as I walked about 2 miles to the usual 8:30 p.m. march meet-up spot, including going down one whole block where people filled nearly all the balconies on both sides to bang their pots & pans (all of them cheering enthusiastically when I strolled by and banged on my lone pot in return below them), to finding thousands converging at 8:30 in costumes, with big banners & flags & signs, a variety of instruments, and so much cookware making so much noise it reverberated for blocks away as I approached, to whole open-air bars full of people who stood up to applaud and bang whatever they could when our march quickly & loudly went by.

I felt on a rollercoaster of emotions, propelled by the sense that this is what revolutionary social transformation really feels like. Night after night, and often day after day, people are engaging in widespread direct actions. It is not “just a march.” It is a walking toward the future, grabbing the future now. People are daily defying the laws of state–and have been now for months–to begin to make their own promises to each other, from students finding their voices and own education through blockades, pickets, making huge free meals during them, teach-ins and media (the art students showed me a weekly journal/booklet they’ve been designing for student writers and poets), to the populace now reshaping civic space and creating a people’s festival season (as I watch the Grand Prix start its build-up of a festival for the rich), to starting to meet more of one’s neighbors and also rethink neighborhoods via the beginning of assemblies. It’s hard to capture in words, but being on the street here each evening feels utterly distinct from the word used to describe it: “demonstration.” My reinterpretation or misinterpretation of the French word “manifestation” for that English-language term feels closer: something is continually being manifested on the streets.

So especially as the several-thousand-person march I was in almost ran the last long block of St.-Denis toward the Mont-Royal intersection (some 2 miles back right from where I’d originally come) where another thousand people “waited” for us with their march and a sit-in against arrests and repression–with the volume turning up so much I could barely hear myself think–I shed some tears at the beauty of it all. Equally, I felt the joy that accompanies the struggle of change, tonight in many forms, including several instances of anarchopanda echoes on hats, stuffed animals, and backpacks. And I felt awe at how doggedly determined this increasingly dispersed “refusal” and “reclaiming” is when, walking home after midnight from the Ecole de la Montagne Rouge folks–so awe-inspiring in themselves, already having produced this huge, living, useful, agitational, and remarkable body of work that continues to grow, alongside a movement that’s growing in similar ways–I ran across a small troop of extremely loud marchers-casseroles-chanters making their way along the bar area of St.-Denis, just as exuberant as when they likely headed toward the future some 4 to 5 hours ago, some many weeks and months ago.

If you stumbled across this blog post as a reposting somewhere, please excuse the typos/grammatical errors (it’s a blog, after all), and note that you can find other blog-musings and more polished essays at my Outside the Circle, cbmilstein.wordpress.com/

One comment on “Red Streets, Red Art, Montreal, Night 44

  1. Pingback: Montreal, Night 44: Some Short Notes on Another Long Evening | Occupy Oakland World News

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This entry was posted on June 7, 2012 by in Dispatches from Quebec Spring.
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